Just a brief disclaimer to start things off, I’m not involved with the company that makes NVivo in any way, I’ve not been paid by them or anything like that. I try to write about things related to my research here, one of the main things I’ve been using in my research of late is NVivo, so I’m writing about it. No sinister undertones or subtle marketing, I promise.
Quite often qualitative research is criticised for lacking rigour or being based upon supposition rather than hard evidence. Also subjectivity is a bit issue in qualitative work. Often it’s not really discussed in research articles how these issues were overcome or addressed, probably due to word counts and the writer wanting to spend more time discussing their findings. But it does make it unclear to new researchers how to deal with these issues. One of the main movements to bring rigour and accountability to qualitative research was Grounded Theory. Created by Glaser and Strauss, GT made the process of qualitative research more explicit, and stressed the need for researchers to explain the reasoning behind their decisions so that others can see how a conclusion was reached, even if they would not have reached the same conclusion themselves. I’ve written about the nuts and bolts of GT elsewhere, so this post isn’t going to focus on that. This post is looking at accountability and transparency in qualitative research and how programs like NVivo can help with that.
Transparency and accountability in research are important. It’s like leaving a trail of breadcrumbs for other researchers to follow, so they can see how you got somewhere. Even if someone would have taken a different path, they can understand what you’ve done, because you left a trail showing it. When working in a subjective way, as qualitative research often does, making these trails explicit is even more necessary. Other researchers may not agree with the inferences you have made from the data, they may have seen other themes emerge or considered some as more important to the topic than you did. So when writing up research, it’s good to show how you reached these conclusions. This is why we use quotes in reports, as evidence, to show that there is some grounding in what we’re saying. However, doing qualitative analysis by hand can easily get complicated, messy and involve the researcher getting swamped by lots of paper transcripts with scribbled notes all over them. This is where NVivo comes in.
I’d heard things about NVivo, mostly that it was like SPSS for qualitative data. Getting training on how to use it through the University was a challenge and ultimately the training wasn’t the most helpful in explaining what NVivo was, or what it could do. So hopefully by writing about it here, others who might be interested in using the program can decide if it would be helpful for them or not. Firstly, NVivo is not like SPSS. It will not do the analysis for you. It manages your data for you. The reason I mentioned GT earlier, is because NVivo lends itself very well to GT (or GT style) projects, how well it would deal with data from an ethnography, I’m not sure. Essentially, you import your data into the program, be it text files, transcripts, audio, video etc. You can then review the data within NVivo and add codes to it. Each code is saved, you can group similar codes together, complete word searches etc. The main benefit of this is that none of your codes are lost or overlooked. At present I have around 500 codes from my current data. On paper this would be really complicated to track and inevitably, human error would come in and things would be missed. NVivo does solve that issue for you. However, you do have to spend hours coding, finding emerging themes and so on. All the work involved in qualitative research is still there, but NVivo organises it all for you. It also helps to show this accountability and create transparency in the research process. I can see how many individual codes my data created, how they have been grouped together at various stages and eventually, how they have lead to the creation of themes. The trail goes from breadcrumbs to being a string, it’s much clearer, easier to see and follow. However, you still have to remember to unravel it and anchor it every so often.
N.B. If you’re interested in learning how to use NVivo, check out youtube, there’s tonnes of videos on how to use it, they’ve been more helpful to me than any of the books I’ve found on the subject.